Ken Burns has provided a view of the war through the testimony of ordinary soldiers and family members who lived through it, and in many cases didn’t live through it. Watching and listening to them, I couldn’t help but conclude that while it was a necessary war, it wasn’t a good one. Instead, it was a nasty war, much worse than people knew then or than most of us understand today.
Like many Americans, I’ve spent a lot of time during the past two weeks watching “The War,” Ken Burns’ 14-hour PBS epic documentary on World War II. It’s a lo-o-o-ng look at the war that defined a generation and changed the U.S. from an insular nation to a world leader. Like most Americans born after the war, I’ve grown up believing that WW II was a heroic conflict between good and evil – maybe America’s last “good” war. Burns has provided a view of the war through the testimony of ordinary soldiers and family members who lived through it, and in many cases didn’t live through it. Watching and listening to them, I couldn’t help but conclude that while it was a necessary war, it wasn’t a good one. Instead, it was a nasty war, much worse than people knew then or than most of us understand today. Burns created his documentary by spending more than five years in four communities: Luverne, Minn., Waterbury, Conn., Mobile, Ala., and Sacramento, Calif. He sought out combat veterans and their families – not generals and not politicians – and he let them tell their individual stories. The soldiers, sailors and airmen who did the fighting lived through a bloody, scary experience. They watched their friends, fellow soldiers and enemies die in horrible ways. If the generals made a mistake, the guys on the ground paid in blood for their error. “The War” is relentlessly gruesome and fascinating. No single half-hour of it is without at least one haunting interview. Burns filmed testimony from (among others): - 8-year-old Sascha Weinzheimer, a California native who was trapped in Manila when the Japanese captured the Philippines. Food was scarce, and she watched her mother’s weight drop from 148 pounds to 73 during three years of captivity. - Fighter pilot Quenton Aanenson, who survived two years of strafing runs, crash landings and shot-up airplanes before being promoted to captain and put in charge of a fighter squadron. Safe (he thought) at headquarters, his office was hit by a cannon shell. The explosion decapitated a young soldier in front of his desk. Because he was directing his squadron by radio at the time, he stayed at his desk working while aides cleaned pieces of the young soldier from his maps, his clothes and his hair. - Glenn Frazier, who survived the cruelty and privation of the Bataan Death March and spent the next three years in prison camps in Japan. - Eugene Sledge, who fought in the Battle for Peleliu and wrote about the ordeal years later. Some 6,400 marines were killed or wounded and all 10,000 Japanese defenders died. The U.S. Marines spent six weeks taking the Pacific island, despite the fact that American war leaders had previously determined it was militarily insignificant. - Lt. Daniel Inouye, a Japanese-American, who led his squad against the last German stronghold in Italy in 1944. As he climbed a hill toward three enemy machine gun positions, he felt a punch to his side from a machine gun bullet that entered his abdomen and came out his back. He then charged the first machine gun nest, tossed a grenade and sprayed the survivors with his Tommy gun. He ran at the second position and did the same. He then prepared a grenade for the third nest but his arm was shattered by returning fire. Prying the live grenade from his useless right hand, he hurled it at the third nest. He was hit again and had his arm amputated a few hours later. Inouye eventually served five terms as U.S. Senator from Hawaii. - Sgt. Ray Pittman told his story of the Battle of Iwo Jima. Pittman led a 16-man squad onto the island and returned with only two of them. The eight-square-mile island cost 6,800 American lives. All 21,000 Japanese defenders died at their posts. The military awarded 27 Congressional Medals of Honor for the monthlong campaign. We learn something about racism in the 1940s as well. Younger Americans today would be astonished (I hope) to know that most black Americans who enlisted weren’t allowed anywhere near the fighting because U.S. military leaders assumed they weren’t reliable. They were allowed to become cooks, MPs, supply clerks, etc. Even those who were finally accepted for combat assignments were placed in all-black regiments under white commanding officers. Our treatment of Japanese-Americans was even worse. The U.S. government herded more than 100,000 Japanese Americans into concentration camps and kept them there throughout the war. As the fighting progressed, young men were allowed to leave the camps if they enlisted. To their credit, they did so and performed heroically in the European Theater. Although the film wasn’t created to make a political statement, it’s hard not to compare the United States in 1942-45 with the U.S. today. Back then the whole country was at war. Civilians bought billions of dollars in war bonds, lived with shortages in all sort of commodities, including new cars, housing, butter, nylon, tires, sugar and meat. Everyone knew someone personally who had died in the war. More important, everyone believed in the mission. Sadly, this is far from the case today. Contact the publisher at firstname.lastname@example.org.